Book cover and spine photographs: David Sacks
Read an excerpt from "An Ex-Mas Feast," the first story in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them.
Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money. Though she would snap at Baba occasionally, she never said anything to Mama. Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her." Malaya! Whore! You don't even have breasts yet!" she'd say. Maisha would ignore her. Maisha shared her thoughts with Naema, our ten-year-old sister, more than she did with the rest of us combined, mostly talking about the dos and don'ts of a street girl. Maisha let Naema try on her high heels, showed her how to doll up her face, how to use toothpaste and a brush. She told her to run away from any man who beat her, no matter how much money he offered her, and that she would treat Naema like Mama if she grew up to have too many children. She told Naema that it was better to starve to death than go out with any man without a condom.
When she was at work, though, she ignored Naema, perhaps because Naema reminded her of home or because she didn't want Naema to see that her big sister wasn't as cool and chic as she made herself out to be. She tolerated me more outside than inside. I could chat her up on the pavement no matter what rags I was wearing. An eight-year-old boy wouldn't get in the way when she was waiting for a customer. We knew how to pretend we were strangers—just a street kid and a prostitute talking.
Yet our machokosh family was lucky. Unlike most, our street family had stayed together—at least until that Ex-mas season.
The sun had gone down on Ex-mas eve ning. Bad weather had stormed the seasons out of order, and Nairobi sat in a low flood, the light December rain droning on our tarpaulin roof. I was sitting on the floor of our shack, which stood on a cement slab at the end of an alley, leaning against the back of an old brick shop. Occasional winds swelled the brown polythene walls. The floor was nested with cushions that I had scavenged from a dump on Biashara Street. At night, we rolled up the edge of the tarpaulin to let in the glow of the shop's security lights. A board, which served as our door, lay by the shop wall.
A clap of thunder woke Mama. She got up sluggishly, pulling her hands away from Maisha's trunk, which she had held on to while she slept. It was navy blue, with brass linings and rollers, and it took up a good part of our living space. Panicking, Mama groped her way from wall to wall, frisking my two-year-old twin brother and sister, Otieno and Atieno, and Baba; all three were sleeping, tangled together like puppies. She was looking for Baby. Mama's white T-shirt, which she had been given three months back, when she delivered Baby, had a pair of milk stains on the front. Then she must have remembered that he was with Maisha and Naema. She relaxed and stretched in a yawn, hitting a rafter of cork. One of the stones that weighted our roof fell down outside.
Now Mama put her hands under her shuka and retied the strings of the money purse around her waist; sleep and alcohol had swung it out of place. She dug through our family carton, scooping out clothes, shoes, and my new school uniform, wrapped in useless documents that Baba had picked from people's pockets. Mama dug on, and the contents of the carton piled up on Baba and the twins. Then she unearthed a tin of New Suntan shoe glue. The glue was our Ex-mas gift from the children of a machokosh that lived nearby.
Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin's top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker's stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic "feeding bottle." It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night's party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex-mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex-mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue's power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex-mas feast for us.
Mama turned to Baba, shoving his body with her foot. "Wake up, you never work for days!" Baba turned and groaned. His feet were poking outside the shack, under the waterproof wall. His toes had broken free of his wet tennis shoes. Mama shoved him again, and he began to wriggle his legs as if he were walking in his sleep.
Our dog growled outside. Mama snapped her fingers, and the dog came in, her ripe pregnancy swaying like heavy wash in the wind. For a month and a half, Mama, who was good at spotting dog pregnancies, had baited her with tenderness and food until she became ours; Mama hoped to sell the puppies to raise money for my textbooks. Now the dog licked Atieno's face. Mama probed the dog's stomach with crooked fingers, like a native midwife. "Oh, Simba, childbirth is chasing you," she whispered into her ears. "Like school is chasing my son." She pushed the dog outside. Simba lay down, covering Baba's feet with her warmth. Occasionally, she barked to keep the other dogs from tampering with our mobile kitchen, which was leaning against the wall of the store.
"Jigana, did you do well last night with Baby?" Mama asked me suddenly.
"I made a bit," I assured her, and passed her a handful of coins and notes. She pushed the money under her shuka; the zip of the purse released two crisp farts. Though people were more generous to beggars at Ex-mas, our real bait was Baby. We took turns pushing him in the faces of passersby.
" Aii! Son, you never see Ex-mas like this year." Her face widened in a grin. "We shall pay school fees next year. No more randameandering around. No more chomaring your brain with glue, boy. You going back to school! Did the rain beat you and Baby?"
"Rain caught me here," I said.
"And Baby? Who is carrying him?"
"Naema," I said.
"And Maisha? Where is she to do her time with the child?"
"Mama, she is very angry."
"That gal is beat-beating my head. Three months now she is not greeting me. What insects are eating her brain?" Sometimes Mama's words came out like a yawn because the holes between her teeth were wide. "Eh, now that she shakes-shakes her body to moneymen, she thinks she has passed me? Tell me, why did she refuse to stay with Baby?"
"She says it's child abuse."
"Child abuse? Is she now NGO worker? She likes being a prostitute better than begging with Baby?"
"Me, I don't know. She just went with the ma -men tourists. Today, real white people, musungu. With monkey."
Mama spat through the doorway. " Puu, those ones are useless. I know them. They don't ever pay the Ex-mas rate—and then they even let their ma -monkey f*** her. Jigana, talk with that gal. Or don't you want to complete school? She can't just give you uniform only."